Saturday Science Lessons in the Park: Cleveland School District Sneaks Science Learning into Eye-Catching, Hands-On Experiments at Festival

Jazlyn Anderson, 4, reacts with surprise as her “volcano” of baking soda and vinegar erupts during a Cleveland school district science demonstration at a community festival. (Patrick O’Donnell)

“It’s going to be a big explosion, OK buddy?” instructor Kyle McCorvey says, handing Isaiah Palmore, 4, a cup of baking soda.

“Uh oh,” Isaiah’s grandfather Malcolm tells him, as he starts to pour the baking soda into a jar of vinegar. “Get ready.”

As the soda, a base; and the vinegar, an acid, mix, react, then foam and overflow out of the jar, Isaiah jumps back with a surprised grin. “Oooohhhh!”

“Your own volcano,” McCorvey says. “Eruption!”

The fast and flashy science lesson by the Cleveland school district drew Isaiah and dozens of other children on a Saturday morning in July at the YAY! Saturdays family festival in a park inside Cleveland’s University Circle, the city’s art, music, and museum neighborhood.

As community groups gave demonstrations of fire-spinning or soccer lessons and brought a bookmobile, the district set up its own tent to offer kids hands-on science experiments for Saturdays in June and July, all aimed at slipping learning into a fun post-COVID event.

Teaching any science to kids is a big need for Cleveland schools, even before COVID kept students out of classrooms, relegated to online learning for more than a year. Cleveland scores near the bottom of Ohio school districts on state fifth and eighth grade science tests. New test results from this spring will be released in September.

The most intense science and math lessons this summer happened at the district’s five-day-a-week summer learning program.

But eye-catching and hands-on experiments like learning aerodynamics by launching paper airplanes, or elasticity and tension through blowing bubbles, were offered on the fly as kids and parents enjoy a fun Saturday at a park outing.

“This is an opportunity to extend learning beyond the traditional means,” said Victoria Weisberg, a district preschool teacher who organized the activities, paid for with federal COVID recovery funds. “We’re hoping to create curiosity about science and engineering and further enhance family bonding.”

Beyond just watching kids try the experiments at the festival, parents were handed a take-home kit to recreate each experiment, or a similar one, at home, along with detailed explanations of the science behind them.

As each child left the table, McCorvey, the college-age son of a teacher helping out that day, handed them a plastic bag with materials to build a “volcano” at home. Included was a link to a Childrens Museum of Cleveland video about how mixing the vinegar and baking soda releases carbon dioxide gas, which creates the bubbles and “eruption.”

For paper airplanes, students and parents were urged to test out what affects flight by making airplanes from different sizes and weights of paper, timing how long they can stay in the air and measuring the distance they can fly.

A handout gave students the fundamental discoveries of air resistance, like Archimedes’ Principle — an object surrounded by air is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the air is displaced; or Bernoulli’s Principle — when the speed of a fluid increases, pressure in the fluid decreases. For airplanes, the fluid is the air and wing shape creates lift.

A dry erase board gives students questions to think about as they test out paper airplanes at the Cleveland school district’s science lessons snuck into a community festival. (Patrick O’Donnell)

And blowing bubbles one Saturday offered examples of light refracting and creating rainbows and in surface tension.

“Bubbles pop mostly because of evaporation,” a handout told students. “The soap cannot form a bubble all by itself. It needs the surface tension of water to stretch into a sphere. The water gets sandwiched in between layers of soap molecules. When the water evaporates, the bubble will pop.”

Palmore said he and his wife would recreate the volcano at home with Isaiah, who they brought to an earlier Saturday experiment this summer.

“It’s great,” he said. “It’s enlightening, educational for kids, lets them know what things are possible with different elements.”

Melanee Anderson was even more excited to keep coming back with her niece Jazlyn, also four.

“That was fun!” she said after helping Jazlyn with her volcano. “Jaz loves it. We’ve come here… What is it? Four times.”

The two tried the experiment at home a couple weeks later, adding blue, green and yellow food coloring to the mix for added effect.

“She actually remembered what we were doing when I pulled the materials out,” Anderson said. “We briefly discussed how baking soda and vinegar created the reaction but she’s only four, so she was more into the action part of the experiment.”

Though the Cleveland schools sponsored the experiments, only about a third of the students participating were from the city, The others, like Isaiah and Jazlyn, are from nearby suburbs. That’s just the nature of lessons in a park open to all, Weisberg said, and an extra bonus.

“One of our great concerns is the issue of equity and access for all,” she said. “We wanted to provide a summer learning experience that is accessible to all, which is why it’s free.”

Students excitedly watch as “volcanoes” are made at the YAY! Saturday festival in Cleveland. (Patrick O’Donnell)

Berkeley Dixon, who brought three nieces and a granddaughter to the event, all Cleveland residents, was a fan.

“They’re talking about bases and acids and I’m learning myself,” she said.

“Parents should be involved,” she said. “They are the children’s stepping stone, their first teachers and the more they know, the more they can give their children.”

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